On Wednesday evening around half past nine, students began to arrive at the Native American Cultural Center. As they settled into place — shaking off the rain, dropping their bags and taking their seats around the long conference table — the group began to catch up on the usual things: the events of the week, how (not) prepared they were finals, events they were excited about.
In many ways, this was just a routine meeting of a Yale student group. But judging from the handful of students who had arrived early, it was clear this was a particularly active crowd. Those who weren’t wearing shirts from other student organizations had political stickers embellishing their laptops, or orange badges pinned to their backpacks in support of Fossil Free Yale. Despite their extensive involvement in other movements, the students present did have one thing in common: They were all DOWN.
DOWN, short for “Defining Our World Now,” is at once a publication and a movement of its own. As an online weekly written by and for students of color at Yale, it covers many topics — from police brutality to the need for an Asian American Studies department at Yale. But beyond that, it brings together activists and journalists in a forum that, prior to this year, never existed.
With her back to the table, Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Spenst ’18 wrote the unifying title on the board in big dry-erase letters: DOWN, with a downward-pointing arrow traveling through the “O.”
“That’s our new logo,” she said, satisfied.
Defining Yale Differently
DOWN has a multifaceted mission, but according to Eshe Sherley ’16, co-managing editor and one of the magazine’s creators, it addresses a need that has long existed in Yale’s communities of color.
“Students were saying, ‘We don’t have a space to talk about our issues, we don’t have a space to discuss what it’s like to be a person of color at Yale,’” Sherley told me. “It was really born from listening to that and saying, ‘Well, maybe we should create that space.’”
For that reason, Sherley said, she sees herself as a facilitator, rather than a founder, of DOWN.
Still, despite her efforts to minimize her role in the magazine’s creation, it was Sherley’s vision for a publication like DOWN that encouraged her former English professor, Briallen Hopper, to connect her with other writers on campus.
“When she mentioned she was applying for funding to start a magazine by and for students of color, I was thrilled,” Hopper said. “This forum is one that has been needed for a very long time, and it’s been marvelous to see it come to fruition.”
Hopper, who taught both Sherley and Spenst in different years, said she knew Spenst would be a good match for Sherley’s publication, and, after reading Spenst’s essays on race, knew she needed to connect the two.
All it took was one meeting for Sherley to offer Spenst the position of editor in chief.
“It just made sense,” said Sherley. “Our model is much more collaborative than the usual top-down structure. And kind of by accident, having a freshman as editor in chief makes that more true.”
When Karléh Wilson ’16 came to Yale as a freshman, she decided not to attend Cultural Connections, the pre-orientation program available for freshman students of color. Concerned that she might have to choose between her racial identities as both an African American and Creek Indian , Wilson felt uncomfortable, and unsure whether anyone would understand her mixed racial identity.
“I didn’t know who would accept the fact that I was black Creek and not just black,” Wilson said.
Upon her arrival at Yale, Wilson mostly stuck to the friendships she had formed within the varsity track team. It was only later, when she overheard two students talking about being Native American, that she discovered the community of the NACC.
For Wilson, who now writes for DOWN, the publication’s most important function is bringing together different cultural communities within Yale. She sees the necessity of a publication that extends beyond the bounds of any one cultural house.
“Whenever I speak about my experiences [within DOWN], people are giving weight to everything I say,” Wilson said. “It’s not taken as a stereotype — it’s taken as Karléh’s experiences.”
For DOWN’s other writers and editors, the magazine’s intersectionality — its willingness to address issues at the intersection of race, class and gender, rather than treating those identifiers separately — is one of its biggest strengths.
Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, who serves alongside Sherley as a managing editor of DOWN, pointed to the diversity of the magazine’s staff as proof of its commitment to connecting communities of color at Yale.
“You can’t get anywhere without that unity,” said Medina-Tayac. “If we put our voices together, we allow ourselves not to identify just as black or Latino or Native, but as DOWN. You can be white and ‘DOWN with it.’ It’s deeply tied to the recognition of how all of our issues are similar.”
A part of DOWN’s desire for unity, Medina-Tayac said, is born from a similar movement among campus activists: to amplify student voices by bridging gaps that separate marginalized groups.
Unite Yale, the organization this movement gave rise to, is, according to its Facebook page, “a coalition of student groups organizing to build student power and solidarity.” Many of DOWN’s board members, including Medina-Tayac, were involved in the formation of Unite Yale. They point to it as one sign of an increasingly intersectional and cooperative activist community on campus.
“This year, a lot of people who care about activism really came together, became friends and started inviting each other every time there’s an activist thing to go to,” said Wilson. “We all have different political ideologies, but any activist movement needs publication to tell people why they should care about it. Now we have that platform to write about why we care, and why others should, too.”
Making a Statement
DOWN intends to be a forum for articles of several genres, including opinion pieces, personal essays and reported journalism. By bringing together disparate styles and topics, the magazine will not only be a place for discussion and sharing, but will also become a source for local social justice news.
Establishing this common ground — somewhere between activism and hard journalism — has been an organic process, even though DOWN is still finding its balance.
“We’re still sort of trying to figure out what it means to occupy that space,” Sherley said. “We don’t want to be preachy. No one wants to read that, and we all actually have very different views.”
In fact, the desire for an alternative news source on campus, especially one that pays attention to race issues at Yale and in New Haven, was one of the major motivations for starting DOWN. Members of DOWN’s staff perceived a gap in the coverage of issues that matter to them.
“Unfortunately, because a lot of publications on campus are primarily white, the people who decide the publications’ content aren’t attuned to issues that affect people of color,” said Sarah Bruley ’17.
DOWN attempts to address the whiteness of Yale’s publications scene in its statement of purpose. Due to “the lack of inclusivity and respect for writers of color and the issues about which they are passionate,” Sherley and Medina-Tayac write, “many students of color [at Yale] choose not to write at all.”
Beyond the desire for a publication that covers the topics students of color care about, Medina-Tayac emphasized the role of DOWN in removing the barriers that currently discourage students of color from engaging in campus journalism.
Medina-Tayac, who wrote for the News as a sophomore, said that, as is the case with many older Yale institutions, publications like the News tend to lack diversity — racial and otherwise. Socioeconomic status, for example, often determines which extracurricular activities a student is able to pursue.
From personal experience, said Medina-Tayac, the commitment that an organization like the News demands of its members can deter students who need to carve out time for a student job.
“I don’t blame writers of color for not being able to write as much for the existing publications,” he said. “What DOWN really came out of is the need for students of color to write. And now we’re writing by our own effort.”
A New Generation of Student Writers
For DOWN, the future depends heavily on the magazine’s ability to encourage and teach its writers.
More than just ensuring that students of color have a forum where their voices can be heard, Medina-Tayac said that DOWN’s biggest job is mentorship.
“A lot of these students come from more difficult public school backgrounds, where writing might not be emphasized. So by saying we accept anything, we really do a huge service to aspiring writers on our campus,” said Medina-Tayac. “When I edit, I’m teaching. The privilege I have of coming from the [News] is that I can share that with our writers.”
DOWN’s young leaders stand to gain the most from this emphasis on mentorship. Of the dozen members of the Executive Board, half are freshmen.
“A week ago, I would have said I want to see more contributors, more articles, building our audience, that kind of stuff,” said Sherley. “But right now, I want us to become the editing resource our students of color need us to be. That’s the resource I hope DOWN becomes, and I hope it’s sustainable, so we can come back five years from now and see it’s still working.”
As for its freshmen leadership, editors like Oscar Garcia-Ruiz ’18 are optimistic about the future of the magazine, but emphasize that the magazine should stay true to its roots.
In addition to wanting the magazine to become a recognized presence, Garcia-Ruiz “[wants] to see it stay a close, tight-knit group of people.”
DOWN is also a third thing. In addition to being both a publication and an integral part of the activist movements on campus, it is a society of friends.
The project has taken a lot of work, but for Medina-Tayac it’s well worth it. “There are lots of late nights editing,” he said, smiling. “It’s been a big year.”